Fundamental feminism

Our contributor breaks down the Iranian university ban on women in almost 80 programs

In August, multiple Iranian universities changed approximately 80 courses to male-only, which range from BA to BSc.
In August, multiple Iranian universities changed approximately 80 courses to male-only, which range from BA to BSc.

Saba Farbodkia

The first female scholars admitted to the University of Tehran were in 1934. Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, was successful in implementing the modern values that were previously melded into Persian society by its intellectuals.

Now in 2012, almost 100 years after such ground-breaking movements, multiple universities in the Islamic Republic of Iran have closed almost 80 university programs to women. They’re a mix of courses, but many are in engineering and sciences. Though these fields have traditionally been male-dominated, they have also led women to employment and admission at Western universities.

While the government of the Islamic Republic isn’t directly responsible for the changes in university courses, the influence that it holds over educational institutions cannot be understated.

So what happened to cause a modern society to regress in educating women?

Simply, it may be the fault of the extreme religious ideology on the part of the Iranian government. It has certainly played its role in supporting a multitude of prejudices against women that have resulted in the gender-restrictive class changes. These beliefs support pre-defined feminine roles that restrict women to households.

Along with the ignorance against female capabilities in general, Iranians are inundated with biased propaganda and education from the Islamic Republic. This reinforces false ideas about women that have been ingrained in Persian society for centuries.

There is no single form of Islamic ideology that all Muslims agree on, but in the forms that are mostly practiced in Iran and most Islamic countries, women are (although not very explicitly) regarded as sexual objects created for the purpose of pleasuring men.

In the process of following this ideological tunnel vision, economic consequences have been ignored.

A study from the World Economic Forum indicates that in communities where women aren’t recruited into the structure of society as much as men, the economic growth of a country falls short. In its current form, the Iranian regime is based on fundamentalist Islamic values and teachings that limit the education of its people, thus shutting down discussions on women’s status and rights in society.

These decisions to shut out women may have been justified by the regime as matters of protection — ensuring women follow set Islamic ideals. Whatever the justification, the restrictive nature is problematic in practice.

When Abdu’l Baha, the Persian founder of the Bahá’í faith travelled to the US in 1912 to communicate his vision for the future, he spoke these seemingly outdated words:

“Woman’s lack of progress and proficiency has been due to her need of equal education and opportunity. Had she been allowed this equality, there is no doubt she would be the counterpart of man in ability and capacity. The happiness of mankind will be realized when women and men coordinate and advance equally, for each is the complement and helpmate of the other.”

At the time of Baha’s speech, there were still universities that didn’t allow women in certain programs. In the US, Columbia University didn’t admit women to Engineering until 1942. Queen’s first held classes for women in 1869 and had women graduating with degrees as early as 1884, although women weren’t admitted into Engineering until 1942. The words of Abdu’l Baha were definitely progressive for the time period and still hold relevance today. This is especially reinforced by current interpretations of Islam that have resulted in this controversial change in educational policy.

The attitude of Shiite Islam towards women’s education is mixed. Examples from certain Islamic hadiths praise men who raise their daughters with education, but there are also those that indicate that men should teach women nothing but the Qur’an.

Iranian women remain discriminated against both culturally and religiously. Ultimately, the Iranian government can be recognized as the most important factor in preserving such patriarchal views — the very views that have led to the banning of women in so many productive fields of study.

The root of the problem, therefore, is not that Islam devalues women. It’s that the most powerful decisions made within a country are based on the

ideologies of a group

that prescribe their own understanding of the ‘truth’ upon their citizens.

Unfortunately, this version of ‘truth’ is often something not supported by logic or science.

This is a serious problem and as long as this is what women in Iran face, the reality is the same regardless of who is making the decision. Fundamentalist ideologies don’t belong in the education system.

Saba Farbodkia is a graduate student at the Queen’s Centre for Neurosciences.

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